Day 39 – Hikes, Buttes, Craters and Lava Tubes
If we took a survey of national parks and monuments with which people are familiar, I’m pretty sure Lava Beds National Monument wouldn’t make many people’s list. Have you ever heard of it? We certainly hadn’t, but there it was on the map just beckoning us to visit. How could we resist?
Inhabited by the Modoc people for over 10,000 years, Lava Beds NM is not a very inviting place on the surface. In fact, the Modoc called this ‘the land of burnt-out fires’. Established in 1925, this monument encompasses 28,460 acres and protects and interprets all aspects of these volcanic lands, its caves and lava tubes, its history of the area and its people. It turned out to be a pretty amazing place. You really can't tell a book by its cover.
Recommended by a ranger, our first hike was up to the summit of Schonchin Butte to a fire tower built in 1942 by the CCCs. Lizards skittered over rock and path. Wildflowers were prolific and butterflies fluttered constantly, visiting the dazzling blossoms. Though the trail was all up, it was fairly easy and the vistas from the top made the half mile uphill trek worthwhile.
The 2-mile trip on the Big Nasty Trail was next after we peered over the edge of Mammoth Crater for a look-see. Again, the variety, number and vast color array of the wildflowers along the trail were gob-smacking. Firewood collection is not allowed within national parks, but Modoc National Forest was adjacent to the park and since collection is allowed there, we collected what we needed for our evening campfire.
We borrowed lights from the park visitor center, obtained our cave permit and bought a map of cave trails when we arrived. Caves and lava tubes make up a substantial part of the park’s attractions. In fact, Lava Beds has the greatest concentration of lava caves in the USA. We chose Heppe Ice Cave to explore. It was rated as ‘least challenging’ on the park’s brochure. I like starting easy and working my way up. We’ve visited several caves in our travels and I always have the expectation that wandering around in caves will be fun. It never is! The steep descent zigzagged through jagged volcanic rock and boulders and was a bit challenging.
As soon as I descended past the mouth of the cave, claustrophobia set in. The temperature changed drastically and I could detect that distinctive damp, musty, cave smell (bat guano?) which puts my senses on alert. I could hear water trickling down and drops spattered on my head. The cave was vast and open. As ambient light disappeared, we used our borrowed lanterns to see the path. David pushed on ahead and I felt more and more confined and less and less comfortable. What if the walls and ceiling collapse? We’d be under tons and tons of granite and volcanic rocks. Worse yet, what if the exit was blocked and we couldn’t dig our way out and we ran out of oxygen? What if we got stuck in a tight spot? What if … what if … what if? The ascent didn’t take me long.
Because I’m a glutton for punishment, we decided to try one more cave that was more amenable to cave wimps like me. Skull Cave had very steep metal stairways with railings, but a very defined path to follow. It seemed somehow more inviting than Heppe (as if I'd ever consider a cave all that 'inviting'). Since it was dark, there really wasn’t much to see as we descended. We shined our lights on the walls and ceiling … the usual stalactites and stalagmites. The cave got its name from the skulls (both animal and human) discovered by early explorers in 1892. I made it to the bottom level, turned around and scampered back up the stairs to light and warmth and fresh air. I think spelunking/caving does not suit me. In fact, I’m sure of it. There was still so much to see. We decided to spend another day at the park … above the ground.
We have, however, crawled through lava tubes before ... at the Galapagos Islands … take a look.
Day 40 – Captain Jack, Petroglyphs & a Tule Lake Monument
For thousands of years, this area was home to the Modoc people. As whites spread west and developed ranches and settlements, the native people were ‘asked’ to leave the area and move north to a reservation. They complied initially, but broken government promises and discord on the new reservation with other tribes convinced their chief, Kientpoos, aka Captain Jack, to lead his people back to their traditional lands. The cavalry was determined to bring them back to the reservation. They refused, fighting ensued and for five months Captain Jack and his band of 60 Modocs withdrew to their lands in the rough terrain of the lava beds and held off a cavalry force of 1,200. They were finally starved out. Kientpoos subsequently surrendered and was executed. These stories always have the same sad ending.
We wandered through the rough terrain along a 1.5 mile historic route and quickly understood how the Modoc’s familiarity with the lava beds provided them a natural, nearly impregnable fortress.
A few miles down the road near the edge of Tule Lake, we took an interpretive walk at Petroglyph Point. Part of the Modoc creation story is told here with some of the petroglyphs dating back as far as 4500-2500 BCE. This great bluff is home to hundreds of birds and their chatter and song rang out as we viewed this interesting rock art and read of its history.
While driving around Tule Lake which is primarily used for agricultural purposes nowadays, we noticed a sign for Tule Lake Unit of WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument and we couldn’t imagine what it might be so far inland from the Pacific. We read the signs, but found the gates closed and locked.
Upon further investigation, we learned it was ‘a segregation center’, i.e. an internment camp, one of ten such ‘centers’ “constructed in 1942 by the US government to incarcerate Japanese-Americans forcibly removed from their homes on the West Coast. They totaled nearly 120,000 people, two-thirds of whom were US citizens.” What a hateful misnomer for this unit of the national monument.
After much ado, we found the so-called visitor center which shared an office with the local fairground offices. The 'visitor's center' consisted of a corner of a room with documents and photos and was unstaffed by any park official. We noted an entry in the visitor book that made us think again about what we were seeing.
Believe it or not, there was still time left in this long summer day to visit the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge. Several short trails interconnected and led us through the refuge wetlands where we saw birds galore … some of which were quite unexpected so far from the ocean … like gulls and pelicans!
The day was done and so were we. We enjoyed our pinyon pine campfire and looked forward to moving on in the morning.
Join us next time as we head further north to Crater Lake National Park, Oregon and beyond.